Saturday, September 10, 2011

Past and Present

Last week I finished listening to an audio recording of the bestselling book, The Help. I started listening while I was working on several sewing projects that I had volunteered to make, but the story was so gripping, there were many times that I just stopped sewing, sat, and listened.

The story takes place in Mississippi during the early 1960's, just as the Civil Rights Movement is beginning and gaining momentum. The primary focus of the book is the nature of race relations during that time period, in that part of the country. What also captured my attention was the interplay between and among the wealthy young white women who formed the "society" of the time...their fears, jealousies, rivalries, and the basis for and fragility of their friendships.

This weekend, the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, I've watched several specials on tv - all devoted to remembering. They talk about the horror and destruction, and they also talk about how NY City, and the country, all came together in unprecedented and unexpected ways. All physical differences were color, age, socioeconomic standing...everyone, friend and stranger alike, just pulled together to help one another survive and cope.

So here we are 50 years after the Civil Rights Movement and 10 years after 9/11 and I have to ask: are we any different? Have we learned anything? Do we treat one another any better than we did before? Are we more compassionate? Do we care more deeply? Do we extend our hand in order to help or just to grab more for ourselves? When we see each other, what do we notice first - our similarities or our differences? Or do we even really see each other at all? And what is it that motivates us?

I have never lived in the South, so I can't speak about that part of the country with any first hand knowledge. I live in the Northeast, in the suburbs, in an affluent town. We have good schools, beautiful parks, houses of worship, libraries, and our fair share of minivans and SUV's. We also have lots of after school activities for our children: various sports teams to play on, clubs to join, and lessons to take.

Where there are groups of children, naturally, there are groups of parents. And where there are groups of adults, there seem to be noses just itching to poke into other people's business and mouths at the ready, spreading news of what the noses have sniffed out. Of course, there also seem to be no lack of ears waiting for the latest and juiciest tidbits that follow that ever popular question, "Did you hear?" And you know as well as I do that 'did you hear' is almost never followed by stories of the generosity, kindness, inherent goodness, bravery, or compassion of the subject. Nope. It seems that our conversations have descended into the realm of sensationalistic tabloids.

It makes me sad to think that 10 short years after 9/11 we're busy picking each other apart rather than supporting each other. We'd rather slam someone behind their back instead of extending a hand of friendship, or at the very least, civil fellowship. We think the only way to raise ourselves up is to push the other guy down. And we do it all within earshot of our children. What are we teaching them?

Those who do not learn from the past are doomed to repeat it.

What have we learned?

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Hooray for Summer!

School is done for the year, my children are home, the backpacks have been emptied out, stored away, and are, happily, out of sight! Hooray for summer! May and June were so unbelievably hectic, I had forgotten how blissful unstructured summer days at home could be.

I spent 2 whole days in the vegetable garden - no guilt at not being somewhere else, no rushing into the shower to get ready for a meeting - just time to dig and weed and plant and dream of the great tastes to come. Then there were days of just puttering - wandering around the house and yard doing lots of those little annoying chores that I had been pretending to ignore for what felt like forever. And then there was the big garden bed redesign project - the one I had been dreading because it required lots of hard, physical labor. But my family pitched in and got me started, and I remembered another great thing about summer - do a little bit each day and, before you know it, you've done a lot!

So, thanks to my son and my husband, the big, overgrown shrub and its ugly shrub neighbor have been removed, stumps and all. The stones and weed barrier fabric are disappearing more each day, and my vision for the new flowers and plants is beginning to take shape. If I keep it up, I may even get around to painting that room I've been telling myself to paint for the last 4 years! Hooray for summer, indeed!

While getting all of these projects done is great, I feel the most wonderful thing about summer is the chance to stop and take a breath. I don't mean a wussy little half-hearted inhale. I mean a deep, suck the air way down into your belly breath - you know the of breath that blows the cobwebs right out of your brain. The big, slow, cleansing breath that re-energizes your body and reminds you that you have a heart full of love. The kind of breath that makes you feel like you're 15 pounds lighter and stand 2 inches taller. The kind of breath that roots you firmly to the ground while allowing your spirit to soar to great heights.

I LOVE those breaths. They make me feel that anything is possible - no goal is too lofty, no hurdle is too high, no problem unsolvable, and no cloud is without a silver lining. So why don't I take those energizing, cleansing breaths more often throughout the year? I think I just get so busy, I don't make the time - which is really silly, since it only takes a minute to do. Or maybe I'm so busy that I just forget. Or maybe the breaths don't seem as important as all of my "real" work, so I push them aside for later...which never comes.

I've decided it's time to breathe as though my life depended on it. I will breathe in peace and joy, and breathe out stress and anxiety. I will breathe in love and hope, and breathe out anger and disappointment. I will breathe in positive energy, and breathe out negative self-talk. I will breathe and breathe and remind my children to do the same. Hopefully, I'll keep breathing right through the winter this year and, next year, I'll find more to love about summer.

Until then, I invite you to slow down for a minute or 2 and breathe a deep, deep, cleansing breath. Sigh.....doesn't that feel good?

Friday, May 6, 2011

The Power of Kindness

I have found that there are things in life that I learn, and then, because I get caught up in the itty-bitty details of day-to-day life, I forget. Then I'm happily reminded of them and then life once again gets the best of me, and I forget. Back and forth and up and down it goes. This week I have been reminded, in a big way, of the amazing power of kindness.

One of the things I love to do is volunteer in my children's schools. I like being helpful and useful, I like seeing the students (the little guys are just so adorable!), I like getting to know our teachers and administrators better (they are very interesting folks and I admire their passion and dedication), and, usually, I like the camaraderie of rolling my sleeves up alongside other Moms and Dads to make a positive impact in our schools. I say 'usually' because the last several weeks have been fraught with struggle, angst, and stress. It feels like tornadoes and hurricanes have been whipping by all around me.

Now, if there's one thing no one can ever accuse me of, it's being a quitter. I've been hanging in there, alternately hopeful and discouraged, but the beginning of the week had to be an all time low. Then I happened to bump into an acquaintance who knew some of my struggles, and she very softly and quite sincerely asked how I was doing. I said I was hanging in there and she again, very softly and very sincerely, patted my arm and offered her help. Suddenly, I felt a little ray of sunshine peeking through the dark storm clouds.

As a result of that extremely short and chance encounter, I found I was actually carrying a little bit of hope in my heart all that day. As it turns out, we got a chance to speak again, and I was truly blessed to be on the receiving end of simple human kindness and a great generosity of spirit from this wonderful lady. I instantly felt lighter, literally like a weight had been lifted off my shoulders, and that enabled me to look at my circumstances with new eyes and a new perspective. By the next morning, I was refreshed and ready, not just to carry on, but to forge a new path, with renewed creativity and new ideas.

Kindness - simple, easy, sincere kindness - is such an incredibly powerful thing. Kindness lifts us, inspires us, energizes us, and brings such happiness to a troubled heart. It encourages us to believe in ourselves, to keep trying, and to see that things are not really as impossible as they seem. Kindness wraps itself around us like a treasured and familiar blanket, providing warmth and protection, safety and reassurance, peace and a place to rest and rejuvenate. It fosters creativity and sheds light on options that can usher in solutions, agreement, and harmony. Quite simply, kindness can sometimes feel like a miracle.

Isn't it amazing that something so potent and powerful as kindness doesn't cost anything and doesn't take a whole lot of time or energy to give? Is that why we forget about its power so easily? Or is it because it's understated and unassuming? Truly kind people don't seek or command great public attention or accolades. They don't stand and shout, "Make way for me! Look how special and wonderful I am!" Nope. Truly kind people work their magic softly, gently, and quietly. The knowledge that they tried to help and did a good thing is the only reward they seek. Perhaps that's why we so easily overlook it.

Well, having been the grateful beneficiary of an unexpected and wonderful kindness this week, I vow to keep the cycle of kindness alive and well. What we put out into the world comes back to us seven-fold, so I promise to put kindness out into the world. The more kindness I spread, the more I will receive and hopefully, I'll keep giving and receiving so much that it spills over and splashes onto everyone around me. If you join me, perhaps we can start tsunamis of kindness rolling all over the world. Now wouldn't that be an amazing thing? And isn't that a great way to repay my friend?

So here comes my rallying cry. Go forth, my friends, and practice random acts of kindness. Look for every opportunity to pass it on. Accept kindness when it's offered to you, and repay it out in triplicate, at least. For every 'Oh my God' you utter in shock or despair, say an 'Oh God, help me be kind' prayer. Seize every opportunity that comes your way to intentionally offer kindness...even to those who seem to live just to irk you. Keep it going, round and round, so that we'll not so easily overlook or forget the amazing, healing power of kindness anymore.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Bloom Where You're Planted

It's a chilly, rainy, dark and bleak, early Spring Monday...the kind of day that makes me want to crawl back into bed, pull the covers up over my head and hibernate until the sun comes out again. That, however, is not an option. There's a family to be cared for, chores to be done, a dog to let in and out endless times during the day, and, yes, even a blog post that needs to be written because I have neglected my blog for too many weeks already.

Aside from all the "physical" stuff on my To Do list this week, there are the emotional worries and concerns that I'm wrestling with...the psychological chores that are, unfortunately, a regular occurrence in life. Those are the chores that I really want to hide from when the urge to burrow into my bed arises. Unfortunately, when you get right down to it, while they're not explicitly written down on a list, those are the most important chores of all that I have to do. Those psychological chores carry with them the precise challenges that I need to encourage me to grow, bend, change...and learn.

Bloom where you're planted. I stumbled upon that phrase many years ago, at a time when I was going through a particularly difficult period in my life. I was whining the typical "why me" complaints, holding frequent pity parties for myself, and wearing lots of black because I was grieving all that I thought I had lost. Then out of the blue one day, I saw this phrase - Bloom Where You're Planted. It stopped me in my tracks.

I suddenly thought of beautiful Spring flowers - crocuses, daffodils, hyacinths - all waving in a warm, gentle breeze. They bloom where they're planted. They sit in the ground all winter and then manage to pull, as if by magic, all the nutrients and water out of the dirt that surrounds them (what we gardeners call "soil") to create gorgeous flowers. It made me wonder if I could do the same.

Could I bloom where I was planted? Could I, somehow, pull from the dirt that surrounded me, all that I needed to actually bloom? Could it be that I had been "planted" where I was, in the midst of all that "dirt", for a reason? The answers, of course, were: Yes, You bet, and Absolutely.

Life does get dirty now and then. We find ourselves in situations that are uncomfortable, unpleasant, and downright depressing. Some are the results and consequences of our own decisions and actions...or lack thereof. Some are thrust upon us seemingly out of nowhere. It's not very nice. It's not fun. Sometimes it positively sucks. But our job is to search for the good stuff, pull it out of all the dirt around us, and bloom...not just survive, mind you, not just grow, but bloom.

It's hard work, this blooming thing. It takes courage, strength, fortitude, energy, determination, persistence, patience, and faith - faith in life and its processes, faith in God, and, perhaps the most difficult of all, faith in ourselves and our ability to learn and grow and change. We must believe in our own inherent value and goodness and in the value and goodness of those around us, even when they're behaving like pinheads, to put it mildly. We must shift our perspective, look for new angles, different views, new avenues forward. We must be open to new and different ideas. Read. Listen. Look. Notice.

We must be willing to try and possibly, fail...and try again. Learning and changing is not always a piece of cake and we won't always get it right the first time. That's ok. Pick yourself up, brush off the dirt and try again, perhaps a little differently this time around. Just don't give up. Know that each situation holds both trials and victories. To bloom we've got to move past the trials and get to the good stuff. There are gems in all the dirt that's surrounding us. Find them, learn from them, treasure them, move forward, and keep going.

Never forget that, throughout our lives, we are all a work in progress. It ain't over till it's over and, as long as we're breathing, it ain't over. Quit whining and wishing you were in a different place. Instead, take a long and careful look at where you are and bloom where you're planted.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Death and Life

Usually, the phrase is "Life and Death", but this past month, it's really been death and life around here. We had three deaths in the family and another funeral to attend in as many weeks, which has left me feeling a little like a deer caught in the headlights. I almost don't want to answer the phone anymore.

It took a few days to get back into the swing of things and get my house back in order, and then it took a few more to drag my heart out of the pit it had fallen into, and I'm just now getting to the point of digesting all that we've been through this month.

Death surely does make one appreciate life a lot more, and it reminds us, as nothing else can, just how fragile and precious life is. But that sentiment is so hum-drum, so run-of-the-mill, and uttered so often, it can't be the only lesson here. There must be something else, something deeper and more lasting, or less easily forgotten, less easily pushed aside by our daily routines.

Perhaps it's the simple act of gathering family and those closest to us...reaffirming our ties to one another, sharing our sorrow, sharing our memories, telling and retelling our stories, laughing, crying, sitting together, being together...just being together. Maybe that's the lesson.

Perhaps our routines and commitments have taken over too much of our time. Perhaps we've forgotten to save some time to just be together and savor each other's presence. We're so busy "doing" that we forget to just "be" ... and be together. Spending time together - it sounds so simple, but the demands of life seem to make it almost impossible. We mean to write - we intend to call - we say we'll gather soon, but somehow, other stuff gets in the way.

Doing "stuff" gets us through our To Do lists, but being together does so much more. So maybe it's time to push some of the "stuff" aside and actually gather together for no particular reason, other than it's fun. Maybe we should stop waiting for an "event" and just declare's Saturday so come on over! Sit down, put your feet up, and stay a while. Cut through the initial "how are you's" and get down to the really important things - talking about everything and nothing, sharing and caring, being and breathing and living together, because before we know it, too much time will pass and we may be gathering for another sad event.

Thursday, January 27, 2011


I attended a cousin's wedding a couple of weeks ago. It was out of state, requiring airplane flights, hotel stay, rental car, the whole bit. My husband and children were not able to make the trip, so at first, I wasn't going to go. But as the wedding date and RSVP date drew nearer, I felt more and more compelled to make the effort to attend - not out of familial obligation, mind you, but out of a true and deep desire to reconnect with my family. You see, I had not seen my one cousin in 15 years and I had not seen my other cousin in over 25 years. Twenty-five years! That's a lifetime!

I hemmed and hawed and, in the end, my sister (who lives in yet another state) and I left our husbands and children at home and we rendezvoused in Florida for the wedding. It was beyond wonderful to see our first cousins, to meet (for the first time) their grown children, and to be in the company of others who share my last name. How could we have let so much time pass by without getting together? How did so many years go by so quickly? Then I wondered why this event, at this point in time, was different. Why was the family pull so strong?

My Godmother once had a plaque in her kitchen that read "Family is Forever". I loved the sentiment when I read it, and I think that's part of the magic that compelled me to put my regular routines on hold to attend this wedding.

Family members are the first people we meet when we are born into this world. Our family is the group of people who knew us before we knew ourselves. They watched us grow. They grew with us and continue life's journey with us now. We learn together. We learn from each other. We celebrate birthdays, we dance at each other's weddings, we grieve and cry together at funerals, we laugh, we talk, we share.

These threads of connection never fade. They never die. Blood ties remain no matter what. No matter where we go, what we become, where we live - the ties are always there our whole life.

More than that, family is where we belong. In a way, it's a part of who we are and who we become. Blood ties make us more similar than different. Family is the whole of which we are an inextricable part. It's where we fit in no matter how "outsider-ish" we may feel. It's where we started and it's the exclusive club to which we will always belong, no matter what. Family makes one out of many.

Family holds our memories. All at once, family reaches back and carries forward. The elders hold the history, the family lore, and, hopefully, wisdom, which they pass down to the younger generations. The younger ones bear the children who are the family's future. Everyone, each family member, has a role to play, a piece of the puzzle. We share the same roots, the same grandparents, the same religion and culture, traditions, language. We even share the same facial features, eye color, hair color, physical features. We look alike. We sound alike. We move alike. We are one.

So I went to the wedding because way too many years went by without seeing my face reflected in their smiles, without hearing voices that held a quality similar to mine, without hugging those who sprang from the same roots that I did.

And what did I learn? Family truly is forever. Even though a lifetime had passed, I was welcomed with more than open arms. I was missed as I had missed them. I am as important to my cousins as they are to me. My presence filled a hole that they may not have realized was in their family quilt, just as their embraces replaced the faded patches in mine. Even when we don't see each other often, family pulls for us, wishes the best for us, wants us to realize our dreams, hopes with us, dreams with us, and sees the best in us.

Today I am back in my regular life, going through my normal routines, but I am ever so much richer and uplifted for having reconnected and experienced, once again, the love and kindness of my cousins. I am fervently hoping that I see them before another 25 years go by, but I know, no matter what, I have their love and they have mine. And what could be better than that?

Thursday, December 30, 2010

The Greatest Gift You Can Give

Here we are at the end of another year. The Holiday rush is winding down. Cards have been mailed, cookies have been baked and shared (and eaten!), gifts have been unwrapped, toys are being played with, and, here in the Northeast, we're digging out of the blizzard of 2010.

Christmas is a memory now, but this year has to go down as one of the best I've had in a while. We celebrated the holiday with family, as we always do, but somehow, this year held a special magic with extra doses of fun and laughter. I've spent the last few days trying to figure out what was different this year, and I think it may be that, 'round about Thanksgiving, I made a conscious decision not to stress. As the Whos down in Whoville taught the Grinch, Christmas would come whether there were boxes and bows, cards and cookies, or not. So I decided to do the best that I could do, not try to live up to some unrealistic, self-imposed expectation, and not worry about it.

As it turns out, I still managed to get all of the things done that I usually do (even if some things got done a bit later than usual) and I managed to actually enjoy it more. Just as the Whos sang on Christmas morning, even without any of the "stuff" that they usually had for Christmas, my heart sang because it was lighter. It was the best gift I've given to myself in some time, and it was a gift to those around me, as well.

Since I wasn't all tied up in knots about what did or didn't get done, I could take in all the joy that Christmas brings, but mostly, being calmer allowed me to see that the best gifts aren't just things. The best gifts are the love, patience, and understanding that we give to one another, and we bestow those gifts by giving of our time and our thoughtfulness.

It is said that actions speak louder than words, so where we put our time and attention speaks volumes about what, and who, is really important to us. Giving Christmas presents is fun, and there's nothing like watching a loved one's face light up with joy when they open a particularly special gift. Let's not forget that what makes a gift special is not the physical thing itself, but what it represents, both to the giver and the receiver. When a present is chosen with thoughtfulness and love, it shows that the giver not only understands what's important to the receiver, but that the giver is supportive and cares about the receiver's interests. It's a symbol of caring and sharing, of nurturing and love. It's a sign that the giver has spent time and emotional energy with the receiver in mind.

As we head into a new year, I'm hoping to keep that thought uppermost in my mind. I'm hoping to remember that the greatest gift I can give to anyone - friend, family member, or even stranger - is my time. I'm hoping to remember that when someone gives me their time, that I take a minute to be grateful, for that's the greatest gift someone can give to me, too.

If we can all be as diligent about giving of ourselves as we are about buying, wrapping, and exchanging Christmas presents, perhaps 2011 will be a year filled with the peace that we all crave.